Friday, 18 July 2014

1996: Wilco: Being There

So, this is the last, alphabetically, of the series of 51 albums from 1963 to 2013. I didn't plan a big bang, but it's nice to end with an album by one of my favourite bands, albeit one of their (slightly) less celebrated albums.

It's not considered an especially important album, but I can certainly make a case for it being quite an important album in the arc which us overly serious rockist music fans and critics adhere to. It's an Americana album from 1996, which was a Britpop year. It's far from the first Americana album, however you use that term. It was made by a band led by the lesser member, Jeff Tweedy, of an influential Americana band, Uncle Tupelo. It was their second album, and the first 'AM' had been pretty underwhelming and shown no great signs of promise, while the career of his bitterly estranged erstwhile colleague Jay Farrar's band, Son Volt, seemed to be going from strength to strength.

Yet it's Wilco now who are one of the most consistently acclaimed bands of the last 20 years, who've been described in terms like "the new REM" and "the American Radiohead".

Looking back, I can say I had an inkling. I had never heard of Wilco, or Jeff Tweedy, or Uncle Tupelo, and I was still very much a Britpop boy, when I received an NME in early 1997 (while overseas) with a large, glowing review of this album (several months after  its U.S release). There was something fishy here. Why was the NME devoting so much space to this unknown American band when we all know they should only really roll out the red carpet for the likes of Mansun and Shed Seven? It seemed anomalous at the time, though looking back, one wonders if some kindly wise journo was saying "All, right, kids, that's enough of the stuff we were into when we were young, this is a little harbinger of what's going to matter to us all when we're adults" ... something like that.

I didn't listen to 'Being There' till two or three years later - it was its follow-up, 'Summerteeth' which really got me into Wilco, after Mercury Rev had really steered me in this new American direction. It's a double album, it's a statement of intent, not entirely consistent in its quality, but it makes its mark.

It's the first song, really. 'Misunderstood'. Like I said, 'AM' is a fairly bland album of unremarkable country-rock with a couple of nice tunes. Looking back, you can say it's the bridge between Uncle  Tupelo and the real Wilco but, at the time, it was largely ignored. Then came, at the start of 'Being There', 'Misunderstood', the quantumest of quantum leaps, a demanding, dark, atmospheric indie-folk-rock epic which presaged the truly great band Wilco were going to turn into. In truth, it fits better on their masterpiece 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' than it does on this album. It's a hint of the songwriter Tweedy was capable of becoming.

As was the six-minute Side 2 opener, 'Sunken Treasure', mournful in pace but quietly, sadly inspirational in outlook. The album is grounded in these two monster tracks, which are pretty much the only songs from this album I've seen Wilco play live regularly.

Otherwise, there's a little more to get your teeth into in Side 1 than Side 2. In the fly-on-the-wall documentary 'I am Trying to Break Your Heart' about the tough time Wilco had making 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', you see Tweedy dismissing the likes of 'Outtasite (Outta Mind)' and 'Monday' as "easy rockers", as if he was almost embarrassed by them, but they're top class easy rockers and, significantly, in recent years, as his fire has died down, Wilco albums have more and more easy going, catchy easy rockers, as  if he has accepted his gift for those kind of songs and finally run with it.

There are also several sweet, sweet country ballads, from 'Say You Miss Me' to 'What's the World Got in Store'. The second side is a bit more one-paced, but you can see the intent in making a double album and, for once, the intent overrides the content. Compared at the time to 'Exile on Main Street', this is Wilco expanding their sound, indeed expanding the possibilities of alt-country itself, you could say ushering in a new age of classic American rock, after Britpop had tried (and most would say, failed) to do the same for English rock.

This isn't their best album or the most enjoyable to listen to - if I was grading them, I'd put at least four conclusively above it, but if, like me, you think the best rock music of the last 20 years as mainly been made by groups of middle-aged American men, then this album can take a fair amount of the blame!

I gave Super Furry Animals a 40 song compilation, and I could do the same for Wilco, who, in consistent quality, in combining the old and the new, are America's equivalent. I won't though, as we can't have two winners. So 30 for Wilco ...

She's a Jar
Jesus, Etc
You'll Never Know
Dawned on Me
On and On and On
Ashes of American Flags
I am Trying to Break Your Heart
The Late Greats
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Sunken Treasure
What Light?
California Stars
I'm a Wheel
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Radio Cure
Say You Miss Me
Impossible Germany
I Might
I Must Be High
Hate It Here
One Wing
Either Way

Via Chicago
I Got you (At the End of the Century)

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

1987:Whitney Houston - Whitney

I had this album. Or rather, I borrowed it, aged 11, for an extended period, from a boy called Amit Arora, along with The Beach Boys' 20 Golden Greats, in exchange for 'Utter Madness'. And I admit, I listened to Whitney a lot more than the Wilsons.

This is very much Whitney's imperial era, where nothing was going wrong and nothing looked like going wrong. As far as I can ascertain, there was no absence of genuine acclaim for Whitney Houston in the 1980s even from the so-called serious music press. Back then, she probably occupied territory currently occupied by Beyonce (though even more successful). It was only really with The Bodyguard soundtrack that she became a significantly more polarising figure. If you liked gloopy, warbly power ballads, you'd buy and cherish one of the best selling albums of all time. If not, she came to represent, along with Mariah Carey, something terrible in pop music.

Two of the very biggest icons of modern pop music died at a similar age within a couple of years of each other at a horrendously premature age.  They both (though Jackson a bit more so) straddle the eras between old and new chart pop music, which changed irrevocably in the mid-80s. Both were from old-school royalty, but made r'n'b/pop, not soul, music with very little of a retro edge to it. Of course, Michael Jackson's fame stands alone, but Whitney Houston is really not far behind, and some might argue she's been even more influential on modern chart music.

Every young female with a couple of octaves, a tear just behind the eye and a melisma is "doing a Whitney". I'll say right now I think her influence is pernicious, but I'll also say she's one of the most phenomenal pop singers I've ever heard.

Daughter of singer Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, goddaughter of Darlene Love and "honorary niece" of Aretha Franklin, it's safe to say that Whitney Houston had classic soul running through her. And she'd have been a great soul singer if she'd been born at the right time, just as she'd have been a great R'n'B singer if she's been born a little later. But she was of such an age that she became a star in the late 80s/early 90s, the age of the power ballad and the smoothing of soul into MOR, of dance-pop and key changes. And it's with that sound she'll forever be associated - looking back at it, there's something pretty joyful and awesome about the stuff on 'Whitney' and its predecessor, 'Whitney Houston'. You'd have to be a bit dour not to find some pleasure in the likes of 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody'. And when I was a kid, I can't deny I loved 'One Moment in Time' and even 'The Greatest Love of All'. This oddly earnest, solipsistic, inspirational flood, it was big business.

So, after a 3rd, more urban, album flopped by comparison, she hit even more paydirt with the noise that defines her, the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, and, above all, I Will Always Love You. When people talk about doing a Whitney, they're talking about that extraordinary, unbearable vocal performance (no, that r in the middle of that word is not meant to be a t).

To be fair to Houston, her acrobatics are relatively restrained compared to some of her peers and successors, but has there ever been a song when the listener's been so coerced into feeling something?

I felt nauseated, and that all but finished Whitney Houston as a listenable entity for me, so the fact that, at the end of the decade, when I found myself warming to the even more r'n'b direction she displayed on 'My Love is Your Love' and 'It's Nor Right But It's OK', it was very much a guilty pleasure.

By then, I think, the word was out on Houston's private life. It's something about the horrible nature of a) modern celebrity and b) hard drugs that she went, in public perception. almost overnight from a woman you could never imagine something bad happening to, to a woman whose early doom seemed inevitable.

A ghastly and grim death, after a tour where all reports suggested the flawless voice was completely shot, and, even worse, her death brought this famously maligned pap tribute from UKIP goon Tony Parsehole

Oh well, Whitney Houston. I'm not really a fan, as you can probably tell, so why did I choose to write about her? Because she's one of the most influential artists of all time, because she defined an era of pop, because, in a sense, despite it seeming like everything went right for her, everything went wrong for her. That's obvious. I don't even mean in the obvious sense. I mean, in the narrow way a chap like me looks at it, she comes pretty low on the critical scale, and really that's just an accident of history. Whitney Houston on Motown or Stax, that would have been great. Whitney Houston, as young artist, leading a band like Destiny's Child, that would also be great.

Still, I believe the children are our future ...

Saving All My Love For You
Million Dollar Bill
My Love is Your Love
One Moment in Time
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
I'm Your Baby Tonight
It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be - with Aretha Franklin
It's Not Right But It's OK
How Will I Know?
Didn't We Almost Have it All?
Where Do Broken Hearts Go?
The Greatest Love of All

Thursday, 10 July 2014

2012: The Walkmen - Heaven

I think I've always had a "favourite band". Though I've listened to hundreds of other things, though Bob Dylan probably is who I rate the highest and have listened to the most, there's always been one band who I'd be able to answer was my favourite for a fairly long period of time.

It goes

Madness (8 to 13, say)
Queen (13 to 15)
The Jam (15 to 18)
Blur (18 to 21)
Super Furry Animals (21 to 25)
Wilco (25 to 31)
The National (31 to 33)
The Walkmen (33 onwards)

Yes, yes, it's obviously an inconsistent tale, I've just been telling you Super Furry Animals win pop music, so they should probably be my No 1 super heroes again, shouldn't they, but, do you know what I mean? From 18 onwards they've been bands who are very much alive, so it is rather to my disappointment that, not all that long after The Walkmen became my favourite band in the whole world, they announced they were taking an "extreme hiatus". Somewhat more cheerily, no sooner had they started this hiatus than they got together again for a charity show, so here's hoping the hiatus isn't too extreme, certainly not as extreme as the Furries or Blurries has been.

But it's the Walkmen I've been listening to above all this last few years. I've been lucky enough to see them on the old festival circuit several times. I'm sure it would be better to see one of their own shows, but seeing them take it to a mid-afternoon slot at a festival, winning new fans along the way, is a pleasure to behold.

They never quite won enough new fans though. They went on for a long time, did plenty of albums, sold a few records, but they'd get to the Top 40 or so in the USA, but they didn't have that big crossover, either instantly, like The Strokes (who they were erroneously compared to early on) or gradually, like The National. The life of the rock band can take various arcs - for the Walkmen and various of their type, they live the life, do the albums, they're really good, then, I suppose, they get to their late 30s with kids etc and it's probably hard to stay on the treadmill in the same way. So along comes the extreme hiatus and then, hopefully, the profitable reunion.

So why didn't the Walkmen get massive? They weren't as glamorous as The Strokes or as handsome, though cooler in a real way - a detached, lived-in, calm, almost patrician cool. They wanted to sound how they sounded, not how would sell records. They generally produced themselves, used vintage instruments, wanted them all to be heard, rather than a dense sound. Their most famous song, The Rat, is one where they let someone else produce it, and they apparently don't like the results themselves. It's too chunky, they say.

I can't say I agree, though I do hear how the sound is slightly different to most of their work. I'm happy with the production on The Rat, though, which I think is, unparalleled, the best four minutes of rock noise ever created, the most perfect unrelenting assault on eardrums from start to finish, an unquenchable exhilaration.

History will consider it so. Trust me. It makes The Ace of Spades, London Calling, Gimme Shelter, all of them, seem a little disappointing.

It's not typical Walkmen though. There's a lot more shade to them. I suppose you'd say they're mainly a winter band, but they can do summer too. Their main weapon is probably the singer, Hamilton Leithauser, with his fabulous powerhouse voice and rather intriguing persona. He plays the tall, privileged jock who doesn't quite believe in himself to perfection. So much of The Walkmen's songs are about winning and the doubt in whether the win will hold. Insecurity is always there.

This album, 'Heaven', looks like being their last, while it was also the first one I anticipated as a bona fide fan of the band. Was I initially a tiny bit disappointed? Did I find it overly stately and mature, did I perhaps think there weren't enough stonkers on it?

Either way, now, now I've been listening to The Walkmen more than pretty much anyone else for the last couple of years, I can say it's got much of their best stuff on it, warm and celebratory, a far cry from The Rat's solitary fury. The title track is one for the ages, a triumphal jangly classic, others to relish are Heartbreaker, We Can't Be Beat (always on about winning!), Song for Leigh, Love is Luck, The Love You Love.

Theirs is a perfectly cultivated brand of thrilling anthemic rock which deserves a lot more than it got, but you rather feel they never really wanted it anyway, they were never willing to reach out and grab more.

The marvellous Hamilton Leithauser (who may live in a lighthouse in New Zealand, but probably not) has just released his first solo album. It's not as good as The Walkmen, but there's some great stuff on it, which I've included on this here compilation ...

While I Shovel the Snow
Alexandra - Hamilton Leithauser
The Rat
Angela Surf City
We've Been Had
The Love You Love
Thinking of a Dream I Had
Little House of Savages
Song for Leigh
We Can't Be Beat
All the Hands and the Cook
11 O'Clock Friday Night - Hamilton Leithauser
In the New Year

Saturday, 5 July 2014

1991: Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque

Interestingly, 1991's album of the year for the American music magazine Spin was not 'Nevermind', but this little piece of work, and Kurt Cobain himself described Teenage Fanclub as the best band in the world, while Liam Gallagher described them, a few years later, as the second best band in the world.

At their best, they made perfect music, almost too perfect. They've made two classic albums, this, their third 'Bandwagonesque' from the grunge era, and their fifth, 'Grand Prix', from the Britpop era. The two albums do sound different, as I'll get to, but neither is really informed by the contemporary trends - they're just thoroughly Teenage Fanclub.

Teenage Fanclub are one of many great Scottish Pop bands, starting from Postcard Records in the early 80s, with Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera. There's been a constant stream of pure quality since then, a small population punching further above its weight than anywhere else. There isn't as such one unifying sound, but there are quite a few bands informed by the jangly sound of the American west coast but with a uniquely Scottish take on it. Why has Scotland been able to "do" American music so well, so much better than England, in the last few years? Maybe it's just that the accent sounds right. The Scottish accent is just a much more natural medium for melodic rock'n'roll than the English one, in my view. The English are forced to either go total American or go full English in a way that can sound forced or can force you to make something which entirely excludes Americana. Not that there aren't great English bands, but few of the best of them incorporate any sense of America. Mumford and Sons in what happens if you try.

Teenage Fanclub are masters of that jangly, harmonising sound. They also have three equally excellent songwriters, who share the weight. In truth, you can hardly tell between them. Their voices and their songs sound pretty similar.

'Bandwagonesque' has certain similarities to Jesus and Mary Chain in terms of taking the sweet sounds of America but still leaving a bit of fuzz and scuzz on it. 'Grand Prix' is far cleaner. That move to cleanliness often signals the moment where a band stops sounding like its true self and more like a covers band of itself, but 'Grand Prix' is just so damn good, it stays on the right side of that.

It stands with albums like 'The World Won't End' by the Pernice Brothers, 'Lapalco' by Brendan Benson, 'Nashville' by Josh Rouse, 'Free All Angels' by Ash, in being minor but perfect, just as fine a collection of songs as it's possible to imagine that band producing.

I do prefer it to Bandwagonesque, but the earlier album is perhaps more noteworthy, showing a) that the early 90s was far from a musical desert for Britain and that grunge didn't sweep all before it, and b) setting the benchmark for so much of the Scottish Pop that was to follow in the years to come.

The problem Teenage Fanclub have is that they're so good at what they do you can feel like you don't necessarily have to hear all of it. But their ability to produce reliably good songs has remained throughout.
Here's the first of two compilations I'm giving you. The first is Teenage Fanclub - i'm afraid it doesn't veer far from their own Best of.

Ain't that Enough
Baby Lee
The Concept
Neil Jung
Sparky's Dream
I Need Direction
I Don't Want Control of You
Star Sign
Is This Music?
What You Do to Me
Mellow Doubt
Don't Look Back

As a bonus, here is, upon pain of death, an attempt to produce a 20-song Best of Scottish Pop - one song per band - i'll include the Scottish folk but only the folk that is poppy, if you see what I mean.

Ain't That Enough - Teenage Fanclub
Rip it Up - Orange Juice
The First Big Weekend - Arab Strap
The State I Am In - Belle and Sebastian
Oblivious - Aztec Camera
American Trilogy - The Delgados
You're Not One Bit Ashamed - King Creosote
Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken - Camera Obscura
Sunshine on Leith - The Proclaimers
Mid-Air - Paul Buchanan
Barcode Bypass - Mull Historical Society
Party Fears Two - The Associates
Dry the Rain - Beta Band
Velocity Girl - Primal Scream
April Skies - Jesus and Mary Chain
Amsterdam - UNPOC
Floating in the Forth - Frightened Rabbit
Darts of Pleasure - Franz Ferdinand
When I Argue I See Shapes - Idlewild
Flowers in the Window - Travis

Just a fragment, really, and quite a mainstream one. There's so much I've missed.

Friday, 4 July 2014

1992: Take That - Take That and Party

You could say I've set myself a challenge for 1992. I was going to choose 'Automatic for the People' which I think is one of the most complete and perfect albums ever made, but I didn't think I'd be able to do justice to REM and their huge body of work, of which, for the most part, I'm only really a casual fan.

I think I can do justice to Take That and its offshoots without trawling through lots of albums. Call it music snobbery, I think justice will be done.

Which is not to underestimate The That, one of the true phenomena of British pop music. They have never stopped overachieving and surpassing what their critics deemed them capable of. Their sales are vast, their influence is vast, they've even done a few decent songs.

I became aware of them pretty early on. I still remember it. Watching 'The Disney Club' on a Sunday morning in late 1991, presenter Andrea (daughter of Stan) Boardman reading a letter out from a fan saying she loved the new Take That song, could they appear on the show, only for the ruse to be (oh, the japes!) that the letter was from Andrea herself, as she was such a Take That fan, and they then performed their second single and the first to reach the Top 40, 'Promises', live. I was mesmerised by the awkward one with the bizarre spiky peroxide do. I don't remember the others but I'll never forget (ah-ha!) my first sight of Gary Barlow.

'Promises' was one of seven songs on their debut album 'Take That and Party' which went on to be a single - they were pretty ropey but the success grew gradually. I hated them from the start, I thought they were everything that was wrong with pop music. Looking back at my complaints, those were pretty innocent times - "They were put together by a manager!" Well, duh. "They're only successful because they're good looking" In later years, the number of boybands that weren't actually good looking made me long for Take That,"They don't play their own instruments ..." oh, goodness.

They established the boyband template which would haunt us for years to come, but they certainly did it better than anyone else - the talented one (we thought), Gary, the cheeky one, Robbie, the cute one, Mark, the background ones, Howard and Jason. The plan, masterminded by Nigel Martin-Smith, was genius. They toured the schools and they toured the gay clubs, they built a vast fanbase. They weren't just for little girls. Everyone loved them, the kids, their mothers, gay men and (believe me, this is true) the rugby boys in the public schools. They fuckin' loved them!

Take That were a Northern 90s phenomenon - ok, let's look at 90s culture in terms of three Manchester vs London, in all of which Manchester was victorious. Oasis vs Blur, Manchester United vs Arsenal, Take That vs East 17. Perhaps the last seems a bit unequal, but there was an attempt to put Walthamstow's finest on a similar level. They really were a rum bunch, weren't they?

'A Million Love Songs', gloopy monstrosity that it is, was probably the one which made people take notice - major currency was made of the fact Barlow had written it himself. Vocal duties began to be shared around a bit as the Number 1s started coming. I still hated them and refused to see any good. In retrospect, I've kind of worked out why. Call it coincidence, but my feelings softened when the 5 of Take That became 4, split up and was 4 on their re-emergence.

The fifth, the initial departee, Robbie Williams, went on to make melodic pop-rock, often guitar-based, with clear and humorous lyrics and big choruses. People might say to me "you like melodic pop-rock, often guitar-based with clear and humorous lyrics and big choruses, don't you? That must be right up your street". But no, giving proof to the fact that taste in music is about more than genre and sound, the music of Robbie Williams is not the music I like. It's the opposite. Ask me what I like and the truest answer is "Not Robbie Williams, not Lily Allen, not U2". He was really quite an enormous success but I find nothing more unlistenable. Perhaps the main thing is that I find his voice the least believable I've ever heard. I don't believe a word.  (that was a Robbie Williamsesque rhyme). I prefer the Vengaboys.

His belief that in co-writing 'Angels' he'd ascended to the ranks of the great songwriters rankled a little with me at the time, but what do I know? It is the one song that is in the Top 10 songs for both weddings and funerals in the UK. All of us music snobs, that say this or that is just cheap and  trite tat, we should think about that.

Anyway, if I rank my Take Thatters, Robbie's bottom. No great interest in Howard, put off by Barlow's Tory arrogance, so then there's little Mark and Jason of Orange. I suspect that, of the five of them, the one whose songwriting and musical outlook would most appeal to me is Mark's, but golly his voice was always reedy.  And Jason? Yes, he's my favourite. Always was, really. I was outraged on his behalf when, at the 1993 Smash Hits Poll Winners' Party, he was the only Thatter left out of the top 5 of Most Fanciable Male. Really? Beaten by Barlow? The kids are cruel. Jason always seemed like the one who understood the absurdity of all, who reconciled himself to a life of making elegant man-shapes for a living, who learnt guitar and took time out to study. Gratifyingly, Jason's the one whose not a member of the Tax Avoidance Scheme which has tainted their good name in recent times.

Yes, it's a little bit Tainted That at the mo, what with that and a few more personal tabloid tales, but their comeback as a manband is, nevertheless, extraordinary. It was far from a foregone conclusion that they'd come back triumphant, and indeed, nearly every other pop band of their type, whether the Spice Girls, All Saints, East 17, 5ive, Boyzone, who've attempted to follow suit with the big comeback have been met by a big sigh of indifference.

Take That's comeback, like their initial breakthrough, was masterful. There was a documentary, which teased the return of Robbie, in which the four others just seemed really really nice, and then there was the comeback song, the one Barlow had clearly been holding back for just the right time for his big comeback - 'Patience' surely their best song, a proper, grown-up memorable song which has set them up for the next 10 years.

Robbie's come and gone again in the meantime, even contributing to a half-decent single, 'The Flood'. The tale is ongoing,  with a new album on the way - they're the last boyband standing, even though Howard Donald is now closer to 50 than 40.

OK, so here's my compilation.  I've taken into account everything I know by all of them. I can't judge Robbie Williams' songs objectively, i'm sure many of them are really well contructed pop songs, but I just can't stand it. And, you know, for all the praise they get, I only really think there's a small handful of genuinely good songs.

The Flood
Back for Good
Open Road - Gary Barlow
Rule the World
Candy - Robbie Williams
Four Minute Warning - Mark Owen
Could it be Magic?
A Million Love Songs
Never Forget